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US Army

Battle of the Bulge 16 & 17 December 1944

Battle of the Bulge 16 & 17 December 1944
 
I was a first lieutenant with Battery "B", 134th Antiaircraft Artillery Gun Battalion (mobile), 49th Antiaircraft Artillery Brigade, First United States Army.  We moved into the Ardennes sector of Belgium on 23 November 1944.  With Battalion Headquarters at Bullingen, "B" Battery first occupied a position near Murringen, and later moved to the vicinity of Hunningen.  Our mission was one of defense against the V-1 flying bomb.  With the emplacement of our four 90mm guns and fire control equipment, and four quad-mounted 50 cal. machine gun trailers, we formed part of the V-1 defense belt established by US V Corps.  Personnel were divided into two duty shifts of twelve hours duration each.  During off-duty hours we were billeted in a stone farm house about a mile from the gun position.  This is where I was on the morning of 16 December 1944.
 

That morning I was awakened about 0330 hours by the rumble of artillery.  This was unusual since the whole area had been quiet for some time.  I called out to a fellow officer whose sleeping accommodations were a section of floor adjacent to mine.  Unbeknown to me he had left to investigate the cause of this early morning disturbance.  Getting no response I became apprehensive I was missing out on something.  I hurriedly put on my boots and over shoes, having slept in my clothes, and left the house.

 
Outside in the courtyard a guard was posted.  He had no information other than to report a shell had landed and exploded in the courtyard just before I came out.  I then started on foot for the journey down a snowy country lane towards the battery position.  There was no further artillery action.  On the way I passed the howitzer site of a 99th Infantry Division field artillery unit (105's) which had kept its company for the past several days.  I could barely make out the huddled forms of the gun crew.  All seemed peaceful enough.
 
I checked in at the Battery Command Post and learned that communication with Battalion Headquarters revealed nothing of an urgent nature.  Daybreak came but the day promised to be a cloudy overcast day with a bit of haze and fog which we had come to expect.  There were no aerial targets.
 
About noon there came the roar of a heavy artillery shell which exploded nearby.  One officer was wounded.  I was dispatched to examine the area for damage and, if there was any discernable path of destruction of foliage and earth, to attempt to establish the direction from which the shell come.I made a sketch and turned it in; the wounded officer was sent to the aid station; Battalion Headquarters was notified; and the quiet returned.
 
About 1400 hours the noise of small arms fire broke the silence.  There was some automatic rifle and/or machine gun fire and the battery communications went out.  Ambulances were traveling in both directions over some of the country lanes and men of an infantry detachment informed our wire repair party there were many dead, both German and American, just around that bend in the road.  Communications were restored and a check with Battalion Headquarters assured us that although a localized skirmish was in progress it was well contained.  The battle noise continued however and was sifting from our front to right rear.  We had no orders to do anything.
 

It got dark quite early that afternoon and by 0600 hours we had been ordered to evacuate the highly classified radar and fire control equipment along with the new proximity fuze for our artillery ammunition.  This step was taken to minimize the possibility of having the equipment and fuzed captured by the enemy.  The sound of battle subsided but further orders came down to load all personal equipment on trucks for removal to a rear area.A  mong my personal belongings was an 8x10 photograph of my fiancée (now my wife).  I took a long and thoughtful look at it, gave it a kiss, and resigned myself to the thought that if this was how it must end for us, well.  I placed the picture in my duffle bag which went on the truck.  The situation was not good.

 

We were to stay in position--we had the 90mm guns (but no fire control equipment) antiaircraft machine guns, two heavy machine guns for ground fire, rifles, carbines and bazookas--but no word from a higher headquarters as to what was really going on.  We knew Battalion Headquarters was still in Bullingen but otherwise there was no contact, visual or otherwise, with any troops in the vicinity, if indeed they were there.It is now about 1700 hours, cold and dark.

 

Two rumors were circulated--one of a downed airman stumbling into one of our battery command posts, friend or foe not confirmed; the other of a coming German paratroop drop.  A buzz bomb flew over and machine guns filled the sky with tracer bullets.  At approximately 2100 hours "march order" was received.  The stated plan was to regroup at Bullingen and proceed to the town of Malmedy. (Subsequent events prohibited the latter.)

 

Unfortunately we didn't just hook up guns to tractors, machine gun trailers to trucks, and move out.  Equipment was loosened only by applications of hot water on hinged parts and by pick and shovel work in the gun pits.  Heating the water was a tedious process.  We were under strict blackout conditions and any fire had to be well concealed by heavy tarpaulins formed into makeshift tents.  The withdrawal was haphazard.Each major piece of equipment was sent on its way as it was freed from the ground and made ready for transport.  Finally the withdrawal was completed--almost.  A two-wheeled dolly had to be left because there was no transport to tow it.  Since it was not self-propelled and was not a weapon, we had no qualms about leaving it.

 

I left the position in company with the officer who had been wounded earlier, and four enlisted men, all piled onto a single jeep.  An eerie silence had set in and we saw no other troops.  It is by now 0300 hours on 17 December.  We are the last to clear the position.

 

On the move to Bullingen a few flares lit up the sky and occasionally a shell whistle overhead.  Out of the haze came an infantry unit marching in two single files, one of each side of the road.

 

Another peculiarity in the traffic of this mystery network was a greater-than-usual occurrence of clear text--that is, of messages which were not masked by codes and ciphers.  Most often the clear text consisted of a single number three digits long.  But there were also occasional clear text questions, like "Was its los?"  "What is wrong?" -- an indication that things sometimes got fouled up in the German Army too.  Another frequent question was "Wo ist bader?"  "Were is bader?"  In fact that question occurred so often that this mystery network began to be called the "Bader" network at the 118th. (118th Signal Radio Intelligence Company)

 

A breakthrough in identifying the Bader network as the gun network occurred when the four letters ARKO occurred in a message.  That was a standard German military abbreviation for "artillery commandant" or "artillery commander," especially for an artillery unit attached, not to a mere division, but to a higher echelon in the Wehrmacht--say a German corps or army.  Those four letters, ARKO, led to the hypothesis that the Bader network might be the network for the big gun that had been shelling crucial points up and down the Moselle Valley.  According to this hypothesis, the three-digit numbers were the bearings reported by the Ops; the long dashes were signals for firing the gun; and Bader was; perhaps ARKO, himself.

 
The hypothesis looked good, but could not be proved or disproved until the times of the long dashes were compared with the times that the big shells hit.  If these times did not match, then the Bader network was the gun's network.  On the other hand, of those times it did match then the Bader network was indeed, the gun's network.  In that case the 118th might be able to help Patton get the gun.  To prove or disprove the hypothesis, an officer in the 118th took intercept logs of the Bader network to an artillery officer on General Patton's staff.  The artillery officer had a record of when the big shells hit and the intercept logs showed when the long dashes had been transmitted.  The times of the two events matched perfectly!  Thus the Bader network was positively identified as the gun's network.  That positive identification had several consequences.  When the Bader network went on the air that night, the direction-finding (DF) platoon of the 118th Signal Radio plotted the location of the radio in it.  Highest priority was given to getting the location of the radio transmitting the long dashes, for that radio was presumably on the gun-train himself.  When the location of that radio was plotted, the best Allied night reconnaissance planes, Black Widows, were dispatched to that area.Black Widows--so called because they were painted black for night flights--were P61s equipped with microwave interception radar instruments for "seeing" in the dark.In addition, the men in the Black Widows strained their own eyes to see the flashes cased by the firing of the cannon.  But the Black Windows failed the pinpoint the location of the gun, perhaps because the gun, for security reasons, never shot while Allied planes were close enough to observe the firing flash.
 

Another consequence of the positive identification was a phone call early every night from Patton's G-2 to the 118th Signal Radio.  Always G-2 asked the same question, "Is the big gun going to shot tonight?"  The 118th could answer that question because the Bader network was on the air an hour or so before the first shot was fired, and the 118th routinely intercepted this preliminary traffic.  On most nights the 118th's answer was "Yes".

 

On one memorable night the gun's target was again Nancy.  At that time the 118th was in a chateau on a ridge over-looking the city, about three miles away.  After hearing the long dash, soldiers in the 118th looked down on the darkened city to see the impact-flash of the shell.  Every time except once the long dash was followed almost instantly by a vivid flash in the city below.

 

Close cooperation between the intelligence and artillery units on his staff enabled Patton, finally, to get that gun.  After the combination of direction-finding and Black Widow surveillance failed to locate the gun with sufficient precision for attacking it, another tactic was tried.  In this tactic the long dashes intercepted by the 118th were transmitted by Third Army's telephone system to Third Army's own artillery OP's.As a result, American Ops spread out along Third Army's front were alerted for the firing of the railroad gun in the same way that the German Ops were alerted.  Every time a long dash was broadcast, Americans got bearings on the gun-flash, and the Germans got bearings on the impact-flash.  To enhance the accuracy of the Americans got bearings, Third Army Artillery was silenced for a moment after each long dash; the temporary reduction in the fireworks of war increased the conspicuousness of the flash of the railroad gun.  The location of that gun was thus pinpointed with such precision that the monster could be attacked directly.  It was promptly put out of business and Patton (among many others) slept better.

 

At least partly because of its role in getting that gun, the 118th Signal Radio Intelligence Company was awarded a Presidential Citation.

 

Source:Bulge Bugle, February 2003

By Lt Sidney J. LAWRENCE

Battery "B"

134th AAA Gun Battalion

49th Antiaircraft Artillery Brigade

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium